With its recent release of its Aera (pronounced like "era") line of handhelds, Garmin has gone from the capable but somewhat clunky 296/396/496-series navigators to the sleek, nearly smooth touch-screen lines of the Aera product. It's quite a change.
As soon as I laid eyes on the unit, I realized that while it is small, the display is actually bigger than the 496's. At 4.3 inches diagonally, the Aera has the same screen size as the GNS 430 in my panel, which seems a bit like a feat of magic. Garmin was able to increase screen size while keeping the unit small by going with the touch-screen technology and thereby eliminating the buttons and the big bezel they need.
There is, in fact, only one button on the Aera — the on/off switch — and a couple of covered, recessed ports for hooking up an external GPS antenna and an audio cable to play XM radio or system sounds through the airplane's (or car's) sound system. Charging and hookup to the XM antenna is done through the yoke or dash mount, which interfaces with the flush electrical/data port on the back of the Aera.
The auto-dimming display is beautiful, bright and richly colored, enhancing the eye-candy symbology for which Garmin is famous.
There are four Aera handhelds — the 500, 510, 550 and 560, each with a fuller feature set than the one before. Ranging in price from $799 to $1,999, they all come with WAAS and built-in auto navigators with turn-by-turn voice capability. All come standard with high-resolution aviation databases, with terrain and airport data. Based on price alone, for pilots who already have a 496 or 396 and are happy with it, the upgrade to an Aera might be a tough call to make.
At the high end, the 560 comes with several must-have applications: XM weather (including all the hardware you need), AOPA airport directory for FBO and local business information, enhanced resolution terrain, Garmin's SafeTaxi airport diagrams and several enhanced auto navigation features, including speed limit notification. (You can find a chart detailing the features of each Aera handheld at garmin.com)
The Aera is a true handheld, but its battery life is not long when you use full backlighting and plug in accessories, the most important of which is the XM antenna. Even though Garmin claims up to five hours for the Aera when backlighting is limited and no accessories are plugged in, for aviation use, you want to be hooked up to external power. The included yoke mount — side-yoked Cirrus drivers like me need an alternative — also serves as a link to the XM antenna and to the auxiliary power connector.
Flying with the Aera
I made several flights with the Aera over the course of a few weeks. Though there's a learning curve steeper than with other Garmin portables I've tried, I liked the 560 right off the bat and liked it more every time I went flying with it.
By now, Garmin's handheld software is so second nature to me that the new interface used on the Aera took me a while to get used to. Here is the difference in a nutshell. On the previous portables, there were pages you scrolled through. Keep on going and you're back to the beginning. Instead, on the Aera, every time you need to go to a different page, you simply go to the "home" screen, which has a menu, then click on where you want to go — "terrain," for instance — and you're there. Two screen touches, and it's done. Nice.
Likewise, it took me a while to get the hang of the touch screen, which has a different "touch" feel than I'm used to. A couple of tricks: When you touch the screen, you need to push firmly and hold your finger there for a second before it activates. This prevents accidental entries in rough air. Also, when you're entering alphanumeric data, like a new waypoint, you want to lay your finger on the screen and run it over to the desired character until the highlighted version pops up. Once I got the knack, it made entering data dirt-simple and very fast.
During my flights, I entered flight plans, added approach procedures to monitor and used the excellent "panel page" that simulates the airplane's panel by using GPS/WAAS data. The five-times-per-second update rate on the WAAS receiver makes the performance of the virtual turn-and-bank indicator, for instance, nearly identical to that of the one in the airplane.
With XM weather, SafeTaxi, a good auto navigator and more, the capability of the Aera is very similar to that of the 496. The Aera 560 does, however, exceed its predecessors in a few areas. It has a much better terrain utility, with 11 times the resolution of the standard terrain feature in other Garmin aviation handhelds. It has a better auto navigator too. And the XM antenna comes along with the 560 for the price of the unit. The screen is substantially larger than that on the 496, and the Aera is more portable and easier to place in the airplane. The 550 and 560 also come with a year's free subscriptions to all databases except for the XM.
Once I got used to the new software interface and had learned a few touch-screen basics, I realized that the Aera is not just a 496 in an upgraded package. When you look closely, the case is compelling. The Aera is tough, sleek, beautiful to look at and easy to transport from the flight bag to the plane to the car, and it's got some great new features, not the least of which is the nicely implemented touch screen.
All things considered, pilots looking for a thoroughly modern, top-drawer handheld navigator with a lot of extras should take a closer look at Garmin's latest handhelds.
For more information, visit garmin.com.